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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney should dump rebel MLA for pushing separatist screed

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Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Jason Kenney can mildly admonish Drew Barnes for spouting separatist twaddle if he wishes, but the Alberta premier's protestations of Canadian patriotism won't be very persuasive if he lets the Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA remain in his United Conservative Party caucus. 

I know, Kenney has a problem with the loony right wing of his caucus, of which Barnes is a charter member. He doesn't want to give them an excuse to join some fractious far-right separatist party and have it legitimized by a presence in the legislature. 

But nowadays, in a post COVID-19 world with oil and gas prices in the toilet and likely to stay there, he's also going to have a problem with clear-eyed Albertans who have figured out that encouraging such dangerous sentiments is not going to make things easier for this province. 

It's hard to feel all that much sympathy with Kenney's plight because it's largely a problem of his own creation. He empowered obnoxious attitudes like Barnes's so he could gin up a fake Wexit crisis to put pressure on his great rival for federal power, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

To make matters worse, he lent additional credibility to Barnes, who was well known for wingnut ideas in Alberta political circles, by naming him to his "fair deal" panel, which was supposed to figure out "how best to define and secure a fair deal for Alberta."

Of course, we mere taxpayers weren't privy to the inner deliberations of the panel, but it now seems pretty clear there were sharp differences between those who interpreted its mandate as producing a warmed-over rehash of Stephen Harper's notorious "firewall" letter and those like Barnes who actually entertained bizarre fantasies of Alberta becoming its own landlocked petro-state. 

What we got last Wednesday was the reheated version of Harper's 2001 sovereignty-association manifesto, which it's reasonable to assume is exactly what Kenney wanted.  

This may explain both Barnes's act of rebellion and the complaint directed at him soon afterward on a CBC Radio call-in show by Donna Kennedy-Glans, another panel member evidently aligned with the sovereignty-association camp. 

Kennedy-Glans raised eyebrows when she phoned the show to take issue with Barnes for writing a long letter to Premier Kenney openly calling for Alberta to hold a referendum on independence if the rest of the country won't give in to our constitutional blackmail.

The letter implicitly criticizes Kenney as well as other panel members by arguing the report's sovereignty-association recommendations don't go far enough, and that Alberta should therefore be prepared to threaten to secede. 

Barnes's rambling screed demanded implementation of a number of hobbyhorses of the Alberta right: among them, removing equalization from the Canadian Constitution, creating an elected federal Senate, running our own tax department like Quebec, implementing MLA recall legislation, and killing supply management in agriculture. He also called for Alberta to draft its own constitution enshrining property rights (often a dog-whistle to gun owners) and to control its own immigration policy (which whatever Barnes intended is bound to be taken as a dog-whistle by racists). 

Hilariously, he also demanded Canada's constitution be changed "to expressly forbid Ottawa from enacting its objectives through legislative means." After which, I guess, a separation referendum wouldn't be necessary because the country would fall apart of its own accord. 

If his will is not done, he concluded, "the majority of my constituents in Cypress-Medicine Hat and from across our land have made clear that we must seek another relationship as a sovereign people." It is hard to say if Barnes actually believes this pish-posh. Needless to say, it is supported neither by polling nor what Albertans said to the panel. 

That said, Kennedy-Glans's complaint on air was mainly that Barnes issued a minority report without telling the rest of the panelists he was going to. 

"It was a consensus report," she said plaintively. "If it was your understanding, then you felt comfortable writing an independent report after the fact, I really have concerns about what that means for the ability of MLAs in the future to contribute to panels like this."

Now Premier Kenney has stepped in to mildly scold Alberta separatists and make an effort, presumably with his own federal ambitions in mind, to shore up his patriotic Canadian credentials. "I don't believe you can qualify your patriotism," he tut-tutted on Friday. "Either you love your country or you don't."

Kenney even acknowledged facts that many of his opponents have pointed out repeatedly: that a separation threat isn't going to build investor confidence in Alberta, that there's no public support for one anyway, and that if you think the province is landlocked now, just wait till it's gone its own way. There was even a hint he realizes all may not be well with the future of the fossil fuel industry. 

But there is no way his remarks can be portrayed as a rebuke of Barnes, as some mainstream media suggested, if all he's prepared to say about such sentiments expressed by MLAs is that he encourages UCP caucus members to speak their minds and mirror the views of their constituents.

No, Barnes needs to be kicked out of the UCP pour encourager les autres if Kenney is to retain any patriotic credibility elsewhere in Canada.

The premier, after all, banished Derek Fildebrandt from the UCP in 2018 for a considerably less serious rebellion than this. 

If Barnes remains a member of the UCP caucus, the meaning is clear: Premier Kenney's claim that "I am an unqualified Canadian patriot" is in fact qualified, and this is just another cynical good-cop, bad-cop routine.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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